The federal agency that oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Asia shares at least some of the blame for the problems preventing a private Chinese-language television network from broadcasting into mainland China, officials from the New York-based New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV) contend.
The decision by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent agency that oversees VOA and other U.S. public-diplomacy outlets, to stop using the Eutelsat W5 satellite for its services into China on July 31 made it much easier for the satellite's French owners to blackball NTDTV's broadcasts on the same satellite, NTDTV spokeswoman Carrie Hung said.
NTDTV officials say their unhappiness is compounded by the fact that the BBG contracted with a new satellite operator whose broadcasts into China can be much more easily monitored and blocked by Beijing censors.
"We feel very disappointed with the BBG's position," she said. "We think they were misled by Eutelsat and did not always keep us informed of what was happening."
Prominent Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng and members of the Falun Gong movement - the principal financial and editorial force behind the Mandarin Chinese-language station - staged a demonstration in front of a Los Angeles federal building Aug. 1 to protest the BBG move.
"The BBG, being an agency sponsored by U.S. taxpayers' money, is transferring all its truth-telling media to a satellite controlled by the [Chinese Communist Party]," Mr. Wei said. "We'd like to ask: Who is the BBG serving with taxpayers' money, the Americans or the Chinese government?"
Paris-based Eutelsat, denying any political motivations, has blamed the failure of NTDTV's signal into China on a technical "anomaly" on the satellite that cannot be repaired.
BBG spokeswoman Letitia King also rejected the NTDTV's charges, saying the agency's July 31 switch to a different satellite was based on budgetary and transmission issues, not politics. She noted that the BBG had no contractual relationship with NTDTV, even though both were using the Eutelsat satellite.
"Our objective is to provide a reliable, accessible, cost-effective service in every market we serve," she said. "This shift was part of a realignment of our transmission network and was made in order to increase our audience reach in China."
Mrs. King said BBG officials were "not naive" about the challenges of broadcasting uncensored news and opinion into mainland China. The Web site of the Voice of America is one of many outside press sources that have been targeted by Chinese censors in the past.
She said the agency was sympathetic to the plight of NTDTV, which has not been able to broadcast into China since the mid-June satellite mishap.
"It's a very important audience to us as well," she said. "It's hard not to be sympathetic any time the question of press freedom is raised. That is central to the work of our agency."
Technical issues also cloud the political debate.
NTDTV officials say the major owner of the new satellite, AsiaSat, which now has the BBG contract, is a Chinese state-owned firm. Viewers in China would also need at least a 4-foot-wide satellite dish to receive the signal, compared with the far more discreet 2-foot dish that can pick up the Eutelsat signal.
Those factors, say network officials, give Beijing far more control over what can be broadcast into China. NTDTV officials say they were denied transponder space on the AsiaSat satellite last month because they were deemed a "forbidden channel" by Chinese officials.
But other technical analysts challenge those claims, saying the AsiaSat satellite provides superior direct coverage of mainland China. Many lower-income Chinese also favor the larger satellite dish served by the AsiaSat satellite, in part because more of its programming is offered for free.
In its most recent annual report, the BBG said its Chinese-language VOA programming is carried on 12 television stations and 70 radio stations in China "despite the Chinese government's tightening control of the media."
The report said that Chinese audience surveys "clearly indicated that more Chinese viewers in the 'direct-to-home' satellite television community are now able to view VOA Mandarin programs" with the new satellite's signal.